How to Survive Even Small Potatoes Public Speaking

They had the nerve to turn up. All lined up at long tables or in rows of chairs or crowded into a stuffy box of a space, elbow to elbow. You would appreciate such comfort of neighboring bodily warmth because you’re shivering despite commanding all parts to be as still as possible. The room appears spectacularly huge from your spot at the podium. It seems off-kilter, to sway the barest amount but you have your wits about you enough to realize this is not a boat; the sense of vertigo is your own. Sweat has begun to swamp the nape of your neck and under arms and then just hang out there. The heartbeat that began to race a little in quiet earnest an hour ago is now having a field day, banging like a three alarm disaster has been called in to you, the owner of the small pumping organ.

You have made a quick assessment of the situation and determine you must leave now. Except that you really cannot; you agreed to do this in a moment of blithe idiocy. Why ever did you sign up for this job/event/reading? You have absolutely nothing to say to anyone, after all. You note the usual glass of water; your throat is already dry as desert air. But whether you can pick it up without it shaking and slopping all over your attractive attire is uncertain; you would rather not try. So you take a quavering breath, dampen your lips and then the words–what are they, do they cohere at all?–fall into the room and head to all those listening ears.

I should note right now that this isn’t a step-by-step how-to sort of article that immediately makes speaking to ten or a hundred or a thousand a breezy experience. It’s just my story of how I have done it. Speaking publicly in any setting can be survived and even enjoyed if you are apprised of its demands and open to surprises. You might have an advantage if you also like challenges, as it can be taxing, too. I know this after having plenty of experience talking about various topics (and performing) in front of many groups. Not a professional public speaker, I’ve often considered how fulfilling it would be despite not being such a blazingly confident or the most entertaining of speakers. I have found it worth even those preparatory moments hijacked at times by annoying nerves.

First of all, that anxiety–the flip-flopping stomach with queasiness, lightheadedness, a touch of shakiness, that thought forming idea that I could possibly faint or go mute or have a heart attack–is the result of a surge of mighty adrenaline. I know–we all know– what that is and how it works, and yet at the time it feels like a serious annoyance or, worse, an intrusive chemical that might kill me. Then I recall that this is the nervousness that precedes any presentation and it is akin to excitement. Body and mind are getting charged up for delivery of enthusiastic energy: anticipation of sharing useful information or my writing to those who can use the material and/or apparently have an interest.

I don’t have debilitating stage fright, I admit. Most of my blog readers know that I grew up performing within a musical family, then in musical groups and as soloist. I played cello and sang, as well as performed in dance events/plays//musicals. But that doesn’t mean nervousness wasn’t an issue, even after becoming more experienced. I rarely ate before I performed since my digestion always took the opportunity to threaten my last bit of composure. I especially worried I might forget lines, music, lyrics, cues and position on stage, the choreography. I knew memory could vanish with an upsurge of an anxiety that fed itself to grow into outright fear. Then came being frozen in time and space: blankness. (Luckily, with work lectures and poetry/prose readings, I’ve usually had notes but one can still lose one’s place or go blank.) I learned my tipping point–where anticipation and nerves turn fully against me and render a reading or performance poor to nil. So I kept working on techniques that soothed the nervous system. Obviously, knowing one’s material exceedingly well is of first importance in performance. And knowing how to improvise when publicly speaking is a skill that often aids the delivery.

Not focusing on an audience as either Enemy or Ultimate Judge (though at times there have been actual judges in my past) makes a big difference. They are only human beings, like me. They are a gathering of them, to be sure, and they want to get their money’s or time’s worth, yes. But they are not going to throw rotten tomatoes at me or even boo at me or walk out, likely. They want to see success happen, not have a terrible time. But even sneaking a peek at the audience can be disruptive to the process preceding a walk onto a stage or speaking space. Chatting with some quietly may help; taking a few sip of water whets the whistle; and a last review of what is about to happen keeps the focus. And always simply breathe. Breathing slowly and evenly matters tremendously; it moderates that pesky heart rate, gives more oxygen to the trusty body that must soon deliver the words. Since I have heart disease with tachycardia and various arrhythmias, this is critical or it may get carried away and I’ll be derailed too long, bringing it down again. Usually I go into the job or event knowing my heart is running faster than is comfortable but I will make it. (Or they can call 911 if needed.)

Since I was a mental health/addictions clinician for twenty-plus years it seems I ought to have gotten over these symptoms. I at times have felt disappointed in the returning symptoms. But it was not the same as performing to an audience, even in a packed auditorium, that chose to attend. Additionally, I remind myself it is excitement, not fear, and that is mostly correct.

Instead had to enter rooms filled with perhaps twenty-five clients–there due to being court-referred for various reasons or because their lives had unraveled emotionally or physically and they hit rock bottom. That meant they were not a happy bunch eager to sit quietly as I talked. (This time I will skip sharing experiences when teaching high risk youth in a room that could barely contain so much defiant energy–another post.) They were angry, resentful about all I stood for in their minds, ashamed, depressed, high on the drug of choice or craving it. They were bored and  distracted. They disliked parting with their money and using their time for a consequence they tended to feel was undeserved. Or that they felt very badly about happening, such as: Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII) or a drug delivery or possession charge, other related criminal charges stemming from substance abuse and addiction, or loss of their families, even their children, due to their criminal behaviors and addictions. And when there was additional mental illness in the mix, it got more complicated, their responses less predictable and at times less manageable for all.

On top of all this, I was not a “hip” thirty year old who dressed and talked as they did; I was a middle-aged woman who had her own manner and style that was not often shared by them. So it was not a picnic for any of us,  as you may imagine. And yet, I had things to offer; they were to hear me out. In time, we got to know one another, trust one another enough, sometimes a lot. Until then, I always entered the room with a genuine ‘Welcome to my group” and made clear nothing could keep me from good will and straight talk.

But I knew they saw me, at times, as one more hurdle, one more enemy to appease. That is not how I saw them. I knew they were ill, lost souls searching for more, angry men and women who could change their lives if they decided it was worth it. Their stories were harrowing and confounding even to them. I entered my group rooms with materials in hand that could illuminate the illness of addiction, the interplay of mental illness. But I also just took myself in. I was a clinician with clear boundaries–I was not one to share personal history of my own recovery–but I spoke from what I understood and what I knew might help. I shared form a desire to help one more person stay alive and find peace and contentment. I was not someone who needed some skewed power or looked for gratitude. I just wanted their attention for an hour. There were many ways to get an audience involved, even a tough one.

One was to engage them in my topics and talk. I asked them questions. Their opinions, ideas and experiences meant something to me and, more importantly, could help other clients. Even if someone vehemently opposed what I said, I encouraged them to tell us why and how they arrived at those conclusions. In time, even the quietest or most sullen spoke up more spontaneously. People like to be given the opportunity to share their thoughts; they need to be heard. I have also been angrily stared at by genuinely tough men and women who sat with arms clamped over chests. But in a month or two, they were loosened up, even sat forward and shared a few things, took a chance.

If someone refused to show respect to others or myself, they had to leave and meet with me before coming back to the next group. But this was infrequent. People are curious and they want to understand themselves and concerning issues. They want to be stirred up a bit to better brainstorm and find solutions. So even though there were those who pulled faces, challenged me and even argued, I also knew that if I was an authentic human being who demonstrated that I was an ally, materials and interactions could construct a bridge to a better destination.

Another way to manage a lecture is to utilize multimedia tools. As you might guess, this could make a lecture even more effective. Discussions arose naturally from watching a well executed film, studying neurology/biology of addiction plotted in colorful diagrams, hearing stories of others who had been there and done that and survived to tell the tale. I used an erasable board, writing down questions and their issues and ideas, naming items crucial to topics, listing pros and cons that they helped define.

The very act of drawing on mental and physical pent up energy helped me with nervousness that accompanied opening paragraphs of didactic lectures. I was spurred on to define concretely and usefully both data and ideas; this in turn enabled people to better identify facts of their life situations. Any time I could simplify, I did so. Any time I could use an analogy that made information more relevant, it was done. Any time humor was appropriate I inserted it even if few outright laughed. My goal was to care, educate, encourage and respect my audience–and that might mean being tough in responses and forthright but never demeaning or insincere. I was fully human and didn’t act otherwise.

The nervousness never entirely left me after all that time when I was to talk to a room full of clients who looked at me a little funny–thousands of people came and went over those decades. Because I might not–in fact, did not– have all the answers. I might say something ill-advised. I made mistakes in my speaking, got a little embarrassed more times than I can recall, had to laugh it off and ask for their forbearance. Being human helped my case; others can empathize with making mistakes and make no comment. And I used discomfort and more nervous energy to propel myself forward. Into that dense emotional space and into the lecture. Into lives of others, with care. That moment when I was face-to-face with someone who was struggling to “get it” and there were tears or anger to witness and accept.

I absolutely believed in what I was doing, and that is key to delivering an even halfway effective talk. No one–even if they disliked me or went for another drink or drug or had another emotional crisis-left the groups thinking I didn’t care about recovery and mental health. That I didn’t care about their lives. But neither did I take responsibility for their decisions once they walked out. My group room experience, just like my individual counseling sessions, was a two-way street. Only they could decide what they would get out of it and what they would take home. How and when they would take their mindsets and actions in hand to create better health. Even happiness.

Finally, the thing that most guides, even saves, me is knowing that lecturing/teaching/advising/entertaining a group is it is not about me. It is about them. And as an important aside, an audience does not really want you to fail. (That was true even in my counseling career. People might appear to sabotage things but in the end they were calling attention to themselves, the need for attention and help. And no one likes to feel they are wasting time or money so they like getting something decent.)

So, what about another sort of public speaking, say, poetry and prose readings, some reader’s theater? That’s clearly more akin to the traditional performance that was a mainstay of my childhood and young adulthood. Theoretically it should be familiar and thus less intimidating that talking to a room full of suspicious, irritable strangers. But it is more specifically, immediately personal. This public sharing is predicated upon revealing my innermost personhood. With the written page being read by unknown readers there is some remove and a sense of protection, illusion or not. But standing before an anticipating crowd with only my own pieces of writing, the work and the writer directly in the spotlight–that’s another kind of challenge. Interestingly, this sort of public experience is still not ultimately about me even thought it feels more like it is. It is about transmitting an idea, a sense of time and place, characters or feelings to other people. It is a performance for, a giving to the listener. But it takes a few minutes to quiet down the antsy ego and remember that.

There is still the nervous flutter of gut, a heightened sense of experience, a thought flashing like a warning: what if they don’t like this at all…But then I remember that this time no one is forced to be there. My writing is being offered to others who love to write or want to write. or they value poetry or short stories or essays, and they want to see what someone else is doing, imagining, laboring over. No one who reads their work to the public feels shielded enough. But that vulnerability is what gives rise to the uncoiling story and rhythm of poetry in the first place and it carries the work into the world, too. Being vulnerable becomes the strength one taps to excavate the truest sense of life and its language; it becomes a raw power that is harnessed, then let loose to labor and rise. But it can still feel like a sudden unwanted nakedness of heart and soul.

That admitted, I have read my writing over a hundred times–I’m not sure how many. I’ve gained a lot being a part of different writing communities. Sharing  one’s work is often a part of that, whether a novice, seasoned writer and/or an avid reader. I appreciate hearing other writers read work aloud. I seem to  have a natural inclination to do the same. I learned long ago that it is not just the writing but the delivery that counts. Some writing is excellent but when read aloud by the one who penned it fails like a lead balloon. So it can be tricky to read aloud written pieces to groups. A few experiences come to mind that caused me to seriously pause before taking the risk needed to read to others what mattered so much to me.

One was at an urban writing institute that is well-regarded, its director being a nationally known poet, himself. The upstairs room was a little box, holding about twenty chairs in small rows. It was evening and it was summer, therefore felt close even with windows open. After a couple of mediocre readers (their work was not my taste, either), a very fine poet, a fine reader, had just finished. People clearly appreciated his work. I had the discomfiting thought that I had no business going up there after such a writer. But there was a paused after my name was announced and it was either slink past the staring audience or just get the deed done. My flutters were immense. I kept gulping air. I realized that this was my challenge: to set free in the room some poems that had never been heard in that rather esteemed place. And I like a good challenge. I had already figured that people might be unimpressed, or bored, or interested in only their own work. But they might like the poems a little. Meanwhile, I was getting more exposure and experience reading. I had hope for my poetry and wanted reactions or I wouldn’t have come to the reading. Unless I lost my voice it would be okay, even if there was no applause.

I took a few good breaths (remember, a critical action), noted I was glad to be there, shared a bit of background to the writing. Then I  began to read with my “strong alto” voice. I made myself look out at others. They looked back and listened. I let the poems move through me and to them. I forgot myself. It turned out fine. I always thank the audience (and my counseling groups, for that matter) for listening to me. I was happily asked to return.

Another experience was at a writing group of women. This occurred after having written very little for some years. It was being run by women, as well. I was used to more mixed gender groups and was curious. A particular approach the group facilitators used is the Amherst Method. We were given a writing prompt and strict periods of time, then we each read (if we chose) our lines or pages. Everyone–usually eight to ten people–was fidgety. Sitting in a circle can engender more uncertainty and squeamishness than being in a large auditorium. The sheer proximity of thinking, feeling persons, strangers at that point, can seem daunting. I am actually a very private person in the flesh. And of course I had no idea if anyone would like what I wrote–it was often fiction, a piece written in two or ten or twenty minutes with no editing. We were not to criticize but support and highlight positives.

It seemed a bit strange–it was not a performance, it was not a reading. It was a sort of critique group but without any constructive criticism. And they weren’t people I knew although we were to read our words as if we trusted each other. But would I get useful feedback? Did they really have a passion about writing? Did they read good books? Had they spent a lot of their lives writing as I had? I who was feeling edgy and judgmental, it turned out. But I read and paid heed to each response as well as their proffered writings.

I learned a lot at that writing group over time. To be flexible in expectations. To write more spontaneously. To be more open to different styles, goals and needs of writing. To find lessons in writing that was very constrained by a timer or subject or a certain word–writing often arrived fresh, unrevised and even stream of consciousness. I lost all worry about reading to this group as we got to know one another, even became in some instances friends. We were together to write more freely, without angst and that was good.

The third experience to share is that of reading an excerpt of my novel Other Than Words. As with most other pieces read aloud to others it was published, this time in an anthology called VoiceCatchers. It also was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, which was a humbling honor. Perhaps because I had invested so much time and labor into the yet-unpublished novel, I felt a weight on my shoulders as I waited my turn to read. It meant something to me to be asked to read it in the elegant room of our main county library. Many fine writers were assembled, as well as family and friends of the readers and those well engaged in Portland’s literary community. My heart thudded like crazy and I wondered if my stomach would stop quivering. I knew how to read in public. But before a standing room only crowd, could I read the words of my story with steadiness and clarity, with passion? I loved the characters in that novel; I felt protective of the small but potent scene I would be sharing.

I thought, who am I to read this thing before all those smart, discriminating people? But hey, I was on the list so I got up with knees shaking and read. Rather, the story opened and moved out from my grasp. I gave in to the narrative tension, interactions and dialogue. I lost myself again and the story took full rein.

I looked out over the audience, let my eyes meet theirs openly, read to each person as if weaving a tale resonant with matters they knew already. Because in it were hurts and healings, the triumphs and failures we all knew. I wanted to release minute seeds of magic that had driven me to write it, then let it take root within them a short time.

As I came to the end of the last sentence there was silence. I felt it. A sound of hearts and minds attuned and humming, a gentle acceptance, a depth of understanding that arises from listening generously. And then, the applause and my genuine thanks. I had made it through the reading. I had offered what meant most to me and it was welcomed.

Do that much when you have the honor to give any public speech: tell the truth as you know it while acknowledging it is one among others. That what you have to share may be embraced or may not be–or not entirely or not at that moment. It remains worth being offered. It can make a positive difference for someone out there. And then have a good time riding the flow as you relax and forget yourself, as all are in this jumble of lifelong learning, being and doing together.

6 thoughts on “How to Survive Even Small Potatoes Public Speaking

  1. You covered it all as to the mental planning of giving a public presentation. Honestly, I can say that the routine teaching eased my fears of public speaking because I was confident of being an expert on my subject matter. However, I learned to not like the lecturing medium for the most part.

  2. Loved your honest comments. When I came to this sentence: “They were here to hear me out” I gasped. Of course. With a number of speaking engagements coming up (the first in a very long time) I found comfort in this thought. Of course that’s why people come. I just have to remember that

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